Having missed out on the Sandakphu trek in 2018 I wasn’t willing to miss out on the Uttarey trek in November 2019. However, the trek dates were also coinciding with a meeting at the Statesman House in Kolkata, that I’d been invited to. It did throw me into a dilemma.
I did not want to miss either event. However, after careful thought, I opted for the Uttarey trek. I could now only think of the ‘opportunity cost’ concept that economics lessons had taught me. I was all set to give myself a break from the city’s cacophony, and the relentless phone beeps. Since it was my first trek, my brother assisted me in getting my gear ready with one statutory warning – “no extra items”. On the day of departure for the trek, the dormitories seemed no less than a fashion show. For added measure, there was also the display of clothing scattered everywhere.
The four-night-five-day long expedition to west Sikkim—and the topography it promises—is always a trekker’s delight. While the state has various trekking routes, such as the Rhododendron, Khanchendzonga, Singalila and the Rinchenpong trek, we explored the Singalila trek or the Uttarey–Phoktey Dara trek.
The sights and fights
On day one, we reached Uttarey. Once there, we were quick to click pictures with the setting sun and also set about taking a stroll in the vicinity. While most went towards the trail that we were to walk on the following day, Mr. Saikia, Soumyadip and I chose a different road. Consequently, we missed out on the group photos clicked. Nevertheless, we had our own share of fun with different photos, conversations and vlog shoots. Later that evening, the boys couldn’t miss a chance of displaying their strength with light hearted fights and hilarious dance moves, leaving us all in splits. The videos shot are still referred to, and are reserved for special arguments.
The name Uttarey, as I later found out, was derived from several nomenclatures. For instance, utey-tarey means “call and bring together” in the Limboo language (the Limboos are an indigenous community of this region). In another version, the name is said to be derived from the Nepali word uttar meaning north. This is possibly on account of the perennial water source streaming out towards the north.
Off to Thulodhap
On the second morning, we awoke at daybreak. A few of us took to the streets to roam in tranquility, drink tea, pose for photos, photobomb others and watch the yaks and horses grazing in the dry lake bed. After this, while we prayed to the Almighty for our safety, the tour manager jokingly remarked, “I hope there are no casualties.” Quite a practical wish expressed, yet unexpected.
The ones who started with much zeal, gradually started complaining about the steep up-hill climb. Meanwhile, the group captains and teachers attempted to make them feel better with humour, allocation of nicknames, trolling, teasing and sharing of funny anecdotes. After having walked for a few hours, we finally halted for a meal. Thereafter, we set out for Achalley, our planned halt for the night. Over the course of this afternoon stretch, we had to assist a friend by employing rudimentary tactics, including tying a stick and a towel to her leg.
Upon our arrival at Achalley, we realised the camp ground would not be able to accommodate our motley crew of 56 trekkers. Therefore, we had to walk further to Thulodhap.
The best part of day two was arriving at Thulodhap in the dark. Along the way, we were witness to majestic views of clear skies, dotted with innumerable bright stars. Accompanying was the brightly shining moon, a constellation, and even a shooting star or two. We really did not expect to catch a sight of all these at once.
It was nearly 9pm by the time we packed ourselves into our warm sleeping bags. Our teachers warned us about the presence of Himalayan bears nearby and asked us not to venture out of our tents at night. However, four of us dared to defy the order though, since we could not defy nature’s call.
That morning we awoke at 3 am and set out in the darkness with only two small torches. It might seem romantic and thrilling in movies but it is not a desirable thrill to face bears in real life. Soon we realised that we had lost our way and were about to enter the jungle. As we tried to retrace our steps, we unfortunately stepped into a small stream. Our feet felt absolutely numb thereafter.
When Kalijhar wasn’t far
The third day held the best sights in store. As we left the dense bamboo groves of Thulodhap behind, we entered a land of beautiful yet unusual trees. This was the red pandas habitat. We wanted to catch a glimpse of this elusive animal, but sadly, we did not see any. They are very hard to spot and all the more so because they are very shy.
A brief while later, we arrived at a scenic spot called Kalijhar. There lay two hills on either side, one being the famous Phoktey Dara. We were thrilled at the beautiful sight of the sunset and the fatigue we’d felt this far, suddenly disappeared. The sight of the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ turning yellowish with a blanket of clouds is clearly etched in my mind.
As darkness gathered on day three, we witnessed a spectacular display of lights on a far-off mountain, which we assumed to be Gangtok. Later we learnt that it was actually Darjeeling.
At 11,500 feet, and with our tired limbs and bodies, all food tasted delicious. As if to add icing to the cake, we were served fritters, soup, chicken and paneer. Despite the gourmet spread, it was a task to get out of our tents because of the bitter cold. Some were counting the number of jackets that they’d worn.
The following morning’s walk commenced at 3:30am and Phoktey Dara was to be the highest point along the trek. It is located next to Singalila top, which sits at an altitude of 12,000 ft.
The view was from Phoktey Dara was breath taking to say the least. This vantage point offered 360 degree views of Mt Everest and Khanchendzonga. In addition, one can also catch a glimpse of four out of five highest peaks in the world – namely, Mt. Everest, Mt. Makaku, Mt. Lhotse and Mt. Khanchendzonga.
The mountains views were definitely worth the physical strain. Far below, we spotted the streets of Uttarey and we knew we’d have to travel a considerable distance later that day.
Plogging along the way
Not too long after, we were caught amid piercing winds. We then made our way to the campsite, ate breakfast, packed our rucksacks and started a 15km long down-hill walk. It initially did seem a cakewalk but as we trudged along, it turned out to be tougher. The distance, meanwhile, made us feel as if we were walking for an eternity.
One jovial group member commented that “It’s better I stay here than to walk so much.” Another remarked, “Goodbye friends, I am staying here forever. Do visit my jungle again”. Meanwhile, there were some so “high on energy” that they danced all through.
Now we also added more value to our trek by taking to plogging along the way. The entire team engaged in a cleaning drive. By the end of it, we’d collected bags of garbage. Although tiring, it was a most satisfying feeling in hindsight.
The trek experiences are fondly cherished. Even our ugly pictures and videos are well stored for posterity. While a few of us were overwhelmed by the physical strain, everyone kept up a strong mental make-up. The conclusion of the trek brought on mixed feelings; we were happy that it was over, yet we did not want to return to school. Well, all we can do now is reminisce.
In an added bonus, I realised on my return that the meeting with The Statesman had been called off. Had I not visited Uttarey, I would have had to forever nurture a regret.